Last Updated on January 23, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1266
If Beale Street Could Talk is set in Harlem in the 1970s. The novel is narrated from the point of view of 19-year-old Clementine “Tish” Rivers. She begins her narration with a rumination on the peculiarity of both her name and that of her 22-year-old boyfriend, Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt. She muses that neither of their nicknames matches with their respective legal names. Tish has just visited Fonny at the jail in which he is currently detained for an as-yet-undisclosed crime. Tish asserts that he is innocent.
During this visit, Tish tells Fonny that she is pregnant with their child. While Fonny is shocked at the notion that he is to become a father, he quickly expresses his happiness and excitement. Tish, too, is excited, because she and Fonny are deeply in love. Tish leaves the jail knowing she must tell her family that evening.
Tish chooses to ride the bus home instead of taking the subway back to Harlem, because she wants more time to think about how she will make the announcement to her family. While riding the bus, Tish realizes that the world around her and the people in it look different now that she has so much trouble weighing on her heart. She mentions that Sis, the name by which she affectionately refers to her older sister Ernestine, made an appointment with a lawyer who has agreed to represent Fonny.
Tish recalls the first time she met Fonny. Slightly older than she, Fonny hangs around the neighborhood with a group of boys who get into trouble. Tish’s best friend at that time is a strong-willed girl named Geneva, who absolutely despises Fonny for some now-forgotten reason. Likewise, Fonny’s best friend, Daniel, loathes Geneva. One afternoon, Geneva and Daniel exchange words before engaging in a physical confrontation. Tish tries to grab Daniel, who is on top of Geneva, when Fonny seizes Tish and begins attacking her. To defend herself, Tish hits Fonny with a stick she fetches from a trash can. When Tish hits Fonny with the stick, a rusty nail she had not realized was poking through cuts Fonny’s cheek. Horrified at the sight of blood, the kids stop fighting and disperse.
Immediately afterward, Geneva castigates Tish, claiming that Fonny will surely die from his wound. Feeling guilty after not seeing Fonny in the neighborhood for a few days, Tish wanders into Frank Hunt’s tailor shop to ask about Fonny. Frank, who is Fonny’s father, tells her that Fonny is staying with relatives in the South for a few weeks, and Frank promises to tell Fonny that Tish asked for him. Upon Fonny’s return, Tish offers him a doughnut as an apology. Afterward, Tish and Fonny become inseparable friends.
In a series of memories out of chronological order, Tish describes how her relationship with Fonny developed into a romantic one. She explains that Fonny’s mother, Mrs. Hunt, never truly loved her only son, whereas Frank always doted on the boy. Often, Fonny spends time with Tish when he is supposed to be attending Sunday school at Mrs. Hunt’s Sanctified church. Mrs. Hunt is a rigid, sanctimonious woman who imposes her religious beliefs on others, yet Tish intimates that Mrs. Hunt is not as holy as she leads others to believe. Tish once asks Fonny if Frank and Mrs. Hunt ever made love, to which Fonny responds with a description of bizarre and degrading sexual encounters during which Frank cursed and Mrs. Hunt cried out to God.
Tish vividly recalls the time Fonny invited her to attend church with him and his mother. Fonny arrives at the Rivers’...
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home wearing his normally unkempt hair in a thickly greased style. Sis had picked out Tish’s outfit that morning. Mrs. Hunt is dressed elaborately, with a veiled hat that Tish finds unsettling.
Having only ever been to a Baptist church occasionally, Tish is unprepared for both the Sanctified building and its congregation’s worship practices. Formerly a post office, the church has low ceilings and a suffocating atmosphere. Mrs. Hunt parades her family down the center aisle that draws the eyes of other congregants. The minister is a charismatic man, whom Tish remembers was arrested many years later. When the service commences, Tish is struck by the dramatic shows of praise from Mrs. Hunt and another older woman, who is just as dressed up as Fonny’s mother. Tish feels disturbed and uncomfortable during the rest of the service.
Tish then discusses her own mother, Sharon, who once aspired to be a singer. Although Sharon is considered plain-looking and a bit odd, Tish adores her mother, admiring her strength and kindness. She relates the story of her parents’ unconventional meeting at a bus station just after Sharon had given up her singing dream. Joseph (“Joe”) Rivers was working at the station as a porter. Upon seeing Sharon, he immediately quit his job and accompanied Sharon to the city, where the two eventually married.
Finally, Tish arrives at home, shortly followed by her mother. Sharon asks Tish about Fonny, and engages in other small talk. Tish clumsily attempts to tell her mother about the pregnancy, but Sharon seemingly already knows. Tish says she is three months into the pregnancy, and that Fonny is glad. Sharon reiterates that Tish has always been a good daughter. Despite this, Tish is overwhelmed and tearful, and Sharon instructs her to lie down until her father and sister come home.
Joe, who is a dockworker, comes home and asks about Fonny. Sharon explains that he is fine and that Tish has plans to visit the lawyer the following Monday. Tish interrupts these events to explain what Fonny does for a living. Unsatisfied with the vocational carpentry program in which he had been enrolled, Fonny decided to become a sculptor. Fonny stole the tools and a supply of wood from the school before renting a place downtown as a studio. Tish first realized that Fonny loved her when she saw him sculpting. According to Tish, sculpting gives Fonny a fulfillment he never found at home, especially given his mother’s lack of affection for him. Mrs. Hunt prefers Fonny’s two sisters, who are pretty yet believe they are better than everyone else in the neighborhood.
The Rivers family sits down for dinner, after which Sharon retrieves a bottle of aged brandy she has had since her singing days. Sharon tells Joe to pour everyone a glass, because they are celebrating new life. Sharon announces that Tish is pregnant with Fonny’s child. Although Tish is nervous about how her father will react, her fears are quickly quashed as Joe reassures Tish that she is a good girl. Even so, Joe asks if Tish wants to keep the baby, only because she is so young. After Tish replies that she and Fonny both want the child, Joe says that he hopes it is a boy and has Tish sit in his lap.
Joe asks Tish if he can be the one to tell Frank, and Tish agrees. Before he can telephone Frank, Sharon suggests that Joe invite the entire Hunt family to visit that evening, so that everyone can learn of Tish’s pregnancy. Tish agrees with Sharon that this is the best thing to do. Joe calls the Hunts, urging Frank to bring his wife and daughters along. When he finishes the call, Joe says that the women must get dressed before they can come to the Rivers house. Joe jokingly warns Ernestine and Tish to be nice when the Hunts arrive.